“Ring of Swords” by Eleanor Arnason
review by P. Douglas Reeder
Two things are indisputable about Arnason’s writing: she is a writer of skill and her stories make minimal use of conventional dramatic sequences. Whether or not you like her stories depends if you like those two things, your politics, and if her writing strokes you the right way. However you felt about A Woman of the Iron People, you’ll feel about Ring.
Ring of Swords is about sexuality, gender, and society. It takes place in a future where humans and the only other known intelligent species, the hwarath, have been skirmishing for forty years since their initial contact. Now peace negotiations are under way.
Anna is a researcher,studying some possibly intelligent jellyfish, caught up in events. Nicholas Sanders was on a spying expedition into Hwarath space, captured, and turned. First Defender Ettin Gwarha is a leader of the Hwarath. The text consists of third-person narration from Anna’s point of view and numerous extended excerpts from Sanders’s journal commented upon by Gwarha.
The oldest Hwarath symbol for themselves is a hearth-fire of women and children, surrounded by a ring of warlike men. In modern Hwarath society, most men are out in space, exploring and skirmishing with aliens, and almost all women and children are on the home planet. Homosexual sex is considered normal, heterosexual sex is forbidden, and the Hwarath reproduce by artificial insemination. Naturally, Hwarath and humans are troubled by each other's existence.
Arnason’s style keeps the reader at a distance from the characters, which weakens the novel for me. Other elements that troubled me but may not trouble you are what seems to me to be a bland third-worldism to future human culture and an extremely negative view of capitalism (when Gwarha seeks an English word to translate a Hwarath concept, Anna suggests ‘capitalist’, but Nicholas corrects her with ‘cannibal’.)
The book also suffers from several logical flaws. When human military intelligence plans treachery at early negotiations, they are totally unprepared for a counterattack by the Hwarath. Later negotiations are held on a Hwarath station far from human space, with the humans at the mercy of the Hwarath. Nicholas asserts that Hwarath are far better warriors than human because of their ferocity (this might be only his opinion, but the text offers no countervailing view). Technology, industrialization, and competence are more important in modern, technological, industrial war than ferocity, and Arnason presents the Hwarath as roughly equal in technology.
So why did I like this book? It’s far more intelligent than most books published. It examines issues at the heart of our humanity and civilizations, without preaching. The characters and the Hwarath society are highly plausible (if difficult to like). The action feels like real events, not conventional story plotting.
%A Eleanor Arnason %T Ring of Swords %I Tom Doherty Associates, Inc. “A Tor Book” %C New York %D 1993 %G ISBN 0-312-85518-4 %O hb